Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” came on the radio and she began to cry softly onto her odometer.

I’m reading a bunch of undergrad literary journals for a contest I’m judging. These stories and poems are talking to each other in strange ways.

The biggest thread is: These young short story writers cannot stop inserting music and lyrics into scenes. The girl gets into the car and who is playing on the radio but LADY GAGA? You love experiencing her in life, now experience someone experiencing her in art! The girl and her boyfriend get in the car (almost always the car) and–uh oh–there’s that Beyonce single they both enjoy! At the pharmacy, a guy overhears Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “All I Want” and taps his foot. (And then in that story there’s actually a footnote recommending “All I Want” to the reader in case he or she is unfamiliar.)

For these kids, the songs are usually a kind of insta-mood creation that over-relies on the reader’s familiarity with the song(s) in question. “I don’t know, I just liked it!” Fair enough. As John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, “I guess every superhero need his theme music.” And in fact, I remember doing the same thing in a story I was writing in college. I don’t think it was learned, but rather absorbed from movies and TV, which doesn’t reference music but actually plays it. The radio in fiction nearly always feels conspicuous. It’s a tiny deus ex machina, God crooning some truths or ironic falsehoods about the character’s condition. Or it isn’t God, it’s just a song on the radio, just some song, in which case the song sits there, begging to be contended with.

If you’ve just got to soundtrack your fiction, the CD player and iPod are better plot devices because they can be attached to character. (The iPod on shuffle, however, could get you back in trouble. You have 7,000 songs and God wants you to land on the one in which John Mellencamp sings about how life goes on long after the thrill of livin is gone.)

Still. Music is part of life. It has its place. Never set rules about leaving stuff out of fiction. So let’s try a responsible one… how about… An hour into her drive, she noticed that music had been playing. Journey’s Greatest Hits. Still? For how many months had the disc been on permanent rotation? At what point had she ceased to hear it at all?

Or you know. Like that but better.

If I was nineteen, I’d currently be shoehorning the following into my fiction:



Laura Veirs

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One thought on “Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” came on the radio and she began to cry softly onto her odometer.

  1. Dave says:

    And also, hooray for Laura Veirs and Typhoon! Jonsi’s an idiot. JustkiddingIlikehimtoo.

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